A sacred and unexpected experience

Amaru Tribe (pictured) will perform at the Sydney Sacred Music Festival. Image: Erin Lee/supplied.

The Sydney Sacred Music Festival wants you to experience the unexpected. Arts editor Rita Bratovich spoke with festival director Richard Petkovic to find out what that actually means.

Richard Petkovic launched the Sydney Sacred Music Festival in 2011 in response to a growing sense of social tension he could feel around him, especially with regard to religious ideology. He wanted to flip the coin and present a different face of cultural and spiritual diversity.  

“I was really interested in creating a vehicle that showcased the positive aspects of multiculturalism. I thought multiculturalism was getting a bad rap and I wanted to uncover and create pathways for culturally diverse musicians to showcase their stuff to the world and to the mainstream,” he explains. 

A musician and producer in his own right, Petkovic is the founder and co artistic director of Cultural Arts Collective, an organisation that champions new, inclusive, cross-disciplinary cultural art and fosters emerging artists in Western Sydney. The Sydney Sacred Music Festival is just one of many arts projects initiated by Cultural Arts Collective. 

As with spirituality itself, the ‘sacred’ aspect of the festival is highly subjective. There is no need to subscribe to or have knowledge of any particular religion or belief system says Petkovic: 

“People who have a passion about the environment, they’re just as spiritual as somebody who believes in the ‘big G’ god.”  

Mongolian Bukhu Ganburged will perform in Concert 3 on September 18. Image: supplied.

He believes sacred music has more to do with how you listen and the intent of those playing it. 

“So a vocal call in a hall without any sacred text, just ‘ahhhs’, can be just as sacred as anything else. It’s about the architecture, it’s about the person and what they’re putting out there while they’re vocalising. Just like you can sit next to a tree in the bush and feel different, so you can with any type of music,” says Petkovic. 

“Be mindful, listen to your own breath, let the music come to you.”

Petkovic is interested in fresh new music with a fusion of styles. He wants to create a contemporary sound that blends influences yet is distinctly Australian. For instance, he might take thousand year old song cycles from the Uyghur community, merge them with African artists working in Western Sydney and South American drummers and create a unique, very esoteric sound. 

The Sydney Sacred Music Festival features an eclectic line-up of musicians who combine innovation with tradition while maintaining the spiritual integrity of their music. The program will be delivered in three free online concerts live streamed on Facebook on 4, 11 and 18 September, and also accessible afterwards. The concerts consist of four half-hour sets, each showcasing a diverse, extraordinary artist. 

Leading off in the first concert is the stunning Lois Olney performing from Denmark, WA. Olney is a First Nations woman who weaves her story of stolen generation through her soulful, jazz-fused songs. 

In the second set, The Shushiki Band, a group of Armenian musicians, play music inspired by ancient liturgical song. They are joined by CONtemp, a septet from Bathurst (Mitchell) Conservatorium who provide an improvised musical response. 

Internationally renowned, Grammy Award nominated Tibetan musician, Tenzin Choegyal will present a stirring half-hour set of traditional song with his near other-worldly vocals. 

The final set in this concert features Melbourne group, Amaru Tribe, whose music is a Colombian/South American influenced mix of electronica and folk – contemporary, accessible and danceable. 

The remaining two concerts showcase an equally diverse, high-calibre selection of musicians. 

On 13 and 14 September, the festival will present a Music and Spirituality Symposium, hosted by the Institute for Australian and Chinese Arts and Culture at Western Sydney University in partnership with the School of Humanities and Communication Arts. 

Across the two days and via Zoom, esteemed speakers will discuss various topics around creativity, Indigenous music, spirituality and more. It’s free but you will need to register. 

In previous years, the festival program included many live performances in locations all around Sydney. Last year it was forced to go predominantly online. Despite the limitations, Petkovic says it opened up opportunities. The festival formed partnerships with a number of organisations who have come on board again this year. It can also now reach people in remote areas or with accessibility difficulties. 

Petkovic would love the music to reach as many people as possible and inspire them to explore diverse cultures and sounds: 

“Just listen and see what happens … It’s not an intellectual pursuit, it’s more about changing the chemistry of the people listening and those playing as well.”

The Sydney Sacred Music Festival concerts will be live-streamed on the Sydney Sacred Music Festival website and Facebook page at 7pm on 4, 11 and 18 September. Concert videos will be also be available on the Sydney Sacred Music Festival website after the performances. For more information, visit www.sydneysacredmusicfestival.org.

To register for the Music and Spirituality Symposium, visit https://westernsydney.edu.au/iac/events/upcoming_events/music_and_spirituality_symposium_2021.

Rita Bratovich is the arts and entertainment editor of the Sydney Sentinel.